November 21, 2013 Into every generation of consoles, some great games must fall, and on the DS, when it rained, it poured. In fact, the DS saw its cup of great games runneth over so immensely that we had 100 games on our initial list of those that we thought had a legitimate chance to make our top 20. We had to vote, debate, vote again, debate some more, and finally make a ruling that we'd only include one game from each franchise. Even then, the choices were mighty difficult, but the rule saved us from ending up with a list that included multiple Phoenix Wright, Professor Layton, and Pokémon games, among others.
The truly amazing thing is that when the system was released, people throughout the gaming industry were fairly skeptical about its chances of success. Who needs two screens? And what will people use them for? Will there ever be a developer who does more with the second screen than a minimap or an inventory? It is certainly true that when the system first arrived on the scene, many developers had a hard time thinking of good ways to use its capabilities (as you'll see mentioned in connection with at least one of the games below). But after the initial awkward phase, there seemed to be no end to the possibilities offered by this great piece of hardware and its seemingly infinite battery life.
Thus, while there are plenty of DS games that are worthy of your time, here are the games that we consider the best of the best on Nintendo's little two-screener that could.
For many of us, Dark Dawn was an exciting surprise. Golden Sun and The Lost Age were two of the best RPGs for GameBoy Advance (and possibly on handhelds generally), so Dark Dawn had much to live up to on DS. Did it? Well, yes and no. It managed to retain the fantastic gameplay, psynergy powers and battle mechanics of the original games, though the story and characters had less depth this time around. That said, the design of the world and its dungeons are terrific and finding and collecting Djinn was fun all over again. It may not be perfect, but Dark Dawn is an awesome game that absolutely deserves its place on this list.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2 retains much of FFT's and FFTA's core gameplay, with some softened rules on law breaking. The story is forgettable at best, but who needs a story when you can change classes at the drop of a hat (and some clothes)? Smooth animations and vibrant color palettes form an appealing realm ripe for getting to higher ground and smacking enemies in the back. FFTA2s solid gameplay provides enough kick to sustain the dying hopes of a second Final Fantasy Tactics.
There are many good games involving Mario and/or Luigi, as well as quite a few not so good ones. The series that features them both in the title, though, has been essentially all good. And the best entry in that series so far came on the DS in the form of Bowser's Inside Story. Every aspect of the game was outstanding, from the graphics to the music to the gameplay and beyond. It was a ton of fun playing as Bowser in the outside world, and it was just as much fun to play as Mario and Luigi inside Bowser's belly and other assorted body parts. And the boss battles as giant Bowser were a great, unique feature that players enjoyed so much that they came back in 2013's 3DS sequel. Bowser's Inside Story is an excellent game, and well worthy of its inclusion in our list of the top 20 DS games.
It's easy for a long-running series of games to simply stand pat and repeat its formula over and over, and we've certainly seen many that do so. But every so often, we see developers who are willing to break the mold and do something completely different, and Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is such a game. A match-three puzzle game with plenty of RPG mechanics (experience points, money, equipment), a five-part story that weaves together the experiences of five young heroes, and beautiful hand-drawn art. What more could one ask for? Capybara made something extra special with this one.
Tales of Hearts is to handhelds as Tales of Graces is to consoles. It has a solid (though not exceptional) story, supported by an absolutely brilliant (in Hearts' case, 2D) battle system. The smooth combos and artes execution never feels old, and working out the best combination of attacks and customisation is a time-consuming joy. The graphical presentation pushes the DS to its limits with great sprite work and vivid environments. Interestingly, the side-story of NPCs Chalcedony and his knights is far more compelling than the plight of the central heroes. An open world (somewhat like Xillia's) is a nice little touch, and there's plenty to see and do. Maybe one day it will be localised.
A lot of early DS games can be described as "gimmicky." Because the platform had features like a touchscreen and a microphone, many developers shoehorned gameplay aspects to make use of these features, often to detrimental effect. Enter Trace Memory; a compelling graphic adventure by Cing that utilized every feature of the DS to magnificent effect. The puzzles making use of the touchscreen, microphone, and even the DS's sleep mode remain some of the finest usages of the hardware's features. Couple this creatively intelligent gameplay design with atmospheric visuals, sweet music, and a haunting storyline, and the end result is not only one of the best DS graphic adventures, but one of the best DS games, period.
Cing set their own personal benchmark pretty high with their DS debut Trace Memory, so rather than re-create a winning formula, Cing gave players something different in the form of Hotel Dusk: Room 215. The visuals in this visual novel feature pencil drawings of the characters during dialogue scenes (similar to that 1980s music video "Take On Me" by A-Ha) that maintain Cing's reputation of uniquely original style. The well-told story stars Kyle Hyde, an ex-cop turned salesman whose routine business trip turns out to be anything but routine when he checks into the run-down Hotel Dusk for the night. The hotel's proprietor and its other guests are not what they seem, and Hyde finds himself inextricably embroiled in their personal lives, which all seem connected to the overarching mystery. With its distinctive style and gameplay featuring interrogative battles of wits, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is a memorable experience.
Ever wonder what happens after you die? Apparently, if you're special enough, you can use Ghost Tricks to manipulate reality in different ways to save others. Amnesiac Sissel, who dies just as game starts, uses his newfound powers to figure out who he is and why he was killed. Characters endear themselves with fluid, idiosyncratic movements as Sissel navigates the murky depths of his lost identity. Ghost Trick's refreshing gameplay involving moving to and manipulating objects to create a favorable sequence of events is both engaging and challenging. Exuding such innovation and quirky charm, it's almost a shame that Sissel doesn't get killed again.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey has an oppressive atmosphere. The presentation is bleak, cold and depressing. Your goal is to save humanity, but around every corner the horrors of modern man are overtly shoved in your face. Every floor is an exercise in survival, testing your preparation and bringing you face to face with a cavalcade of increasingly powerful demons. Strange Journey paints its world with tones and symbols and asks you to supply your own prejudices, fears and expectations. The end result is deeply personal, providing the emotional context for every choice.
The initial shock and thrill of what has come to be known as the "Symphony of the Night formula" for Castlevania titles has certainly been diminished in the years following the production of several games utilizing it — although some of those games are unquestionably fantastic. Order of Ecclesia, while still operating within some of the constraints of the framework, saw fit to challenge some of the Metroidvania elements that had become lodged in the conception of the series. Featuring an intriguing glyph system in place of magic/souls/equipment, and world design that combined the open, exploration-heavy design of more recent Castlevania adventures with the separate level structure of earlier games in the series, Order of Ecclesia dared to be different, and as a result was one of the most entertaining Dracula hunts on the DS.